Summit Elevation (m): 3203
Elevation Gain (m): 1200
Round Trip Time (hr): 9
Total Trip Distance (km): 24
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 2 – You fall you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: Glacier route includes crevasse issues and steep snow slopes. Don’t minimize these risks and learn how to manage them before attempting this trip.
Technical Rating: MN6; YDS (I)
Map: Google Maps
On the shortest day of 2012 I was joined by Wietse and Kelly on an ascent of Mount Gordon on the Wapta Icefields in bitterly cold but clear conditions. Of course, this wasn’t my first time ascending this peak. It was the very first summit on the Wapta for me, back in 2006 on a bitterly cold January day. The afternoon before, we had skied to the Bow Hut in marginal early season conditions across a groaning Bow Lake and barely enough snow in the canyon. We made it to the hut with just a few minutes to spare before dark and enjoyed the hut entirely to ourselves.
After the longest, most relaxing sleep I’ve ever had in a hut before (no snoring!), we geared up and began the slog up the headwall and across the Wapta to Mount Gordon. Over night we’d had some extreme winds at the hut but the avalanche hazard didn’t seem high on any of the slopes we were on, including the head wall above the hut and the steep flank of Gordon. Wietse broke trail the whole the way in 2-6″ of fresh snow. It was bitterly cold (just like the first time I did Gordon) but the views made up for the temperatures and we kept moving to stay warm.
The Wapta is so much smaller than the Columbia Ice field – but Gordon is still a deceptively long way across the expanse of snow and ice. Skiing Collie or Ayesha in one day is a long and hard effort and this is obvious after doing Gordon. As we worked our way closer and closer to the peak we realized how big it really is. At over 10,500 feet Gordon is higher than most other Wapta peaks even though it doesn’t seem like it from afar. The north east flank isn’t nearly as steep as it looks from a distance and we didn’t even switchback on our way up it and around the giant wind scoop around the rocky cliff guarding the summit ridge. We took our skis off for about 4 feet of hard pack snow to gain the summit ridge before skiing all the way up to the summit.
As we skied to the summit in clouds we wondered if we’d get any views but as we topped out the clouds started to part and the stiff (cold!) wind died out completely. We were treated to sublime views in all directions including clouds, icy peaks and towering summit of pure white. I love the Wapta! We waited for a few minutes for the clouds to form and then clear again before the chill started settling in and it was time to enjoy the ski run down and then a nice warm hut for the evening.
The ski run down to the hut went with no issues. The snow was a bit slow due to the cold temps but it’s a fast descent from the summit of Mount Gordon. None of the uphill issues you get with the peaks further north on the ice field. When we got back to the Bow Hut we passed Bill Kerr, Kev Papke and Steven Song going up the headwall to the main glacier. Originally the plan was that Bill would yo-yo the headwall while Kev and Steven would bag Vulture Peak but due to the shortened day light hours Kev and Steven bagged the Onion instead.
I visited with Bill, Kelly and Wietse in the hut for a while but then decided the skiing was simply too good and headed out for one last ski run before supper. For supper we enjoyed steak (cooked New York 1600 style directly in the wood stove), potatoes and carrots with red wine and other beverages. After some good conversation we retired for the night with the goal of skiing the ‘fan’ between the two summits of Mount Olive before either summiting or heading back to the hut and then skiing out.
Well, the world didn’t end on Friday night so we decided we might as well ski on Saturday. 🙂 The weather was far from perfect however, so most of us skied the headwall a bunch of times and enjoyed the warmth of the hut in between ski runs. Kev and Steven were hard core and managed to bag Vulture Peak in less-than-ideal conditions but at least the visibility opened for their summit photos! We skied back to the parking lot in very flat light and got lost a few times thanks to the low snow conditions compared to our usual trips. Overall this was an excellent trip.
Original Ascent – January 21 2006
I guess it was sort of inevitable. After 90 summits reached by non-mountaineering techniques I finally ventured into the world of ski mountaineering with a January ascent of Mount Gordon on the Wapta Icefields along with Dave Stephens, Blair Piggot and Jason Wilcox. Also very fittingly it was one of the most difficult ascents of my life so far – not because the ascent itself is so difficult but because I was suffering from a nasty head cold / flu.
I woke up the day before our outing with a fever and very bad cold. I didn’t see how I was going to accomplish an ascent of Gordon in my condition but I went to bed early on Friday night and decided that I would give it a shot. Dave can never find my place in the morning so I wasn’t surprised with Blair and him were half an hour late ;-). After we picked up Jason we were off to the Bow Lake parking lot.
We skinned up and left the parking lot under very brisk winter conditions at around 0815. Soon we were across the lake and heading up the narrow avalanche-exposed gully. We spaced out around 40 yards and quickly kept pace up through the canyon till we were above tree line about 1.5 hours from the parking lot. We could see the hut from this point and I thought we might make it in 2 hours. Dave thought more like 2:15. We quickly negotiated the steep headwall up to the hut and arrived at the hut 2:03 from the parking lot.
Up to this point I was feeling quite good but that was about to end promptly. Nobody seems to know why but we actually went into the nice warm hut and took a half hour lunch break. This was my undoing. Once we headed back out into the increasing wind and cold I was toast. My clothes were still damp from the hard push up to the hut and once Blair and Dave started up the Wapta I was totally out of energy. I also think my cold medication was running low at this point.
Eventually we made it up onto the icefield and started heading across to Mount Gordon. We couldn’t see very much because of the clouds and wind-whipped snow but I could see enough to know that I want to go back when the sky is clear. The view up there must be simply fantastic!
As we struggled against the brutal wind my legs began to get heavier and heavier and I began to feel dizzy. It didn’t help that the exposed parts of my face were freezing and my goggles were fogging up! I stopped Dave several times on the trip across the icefield and told him I was going back. Every time I would change my mind and kept going. Eventually we came to the base of Mount Gordon’s final slopes and from there every step was agony for me. I had plenty of cardio but my head was playing games with me and my legs weighed about 400lbs! I felt like vomiting all the way up Gordon and several times I had to swallow hard or I would have got my new Helly jacket soiled.
Meanwhile Dave, who already has 3 Gordon summits under his belt, was praying that I would give up already and head back so he would have an excuse! (And I thought he was serious with all his encouragements to “keep going – we’re only 10 minutes from the top”!)
Blair was at the summit before anyone else and eventually the rest of us struggled up behind him. Thanks to my slow pace it took us just over 5 hours for the total ascent. After taking our skins off and snapping a few pictures it was time for fun! The whole reason Dave and Blair ‘dragged’ Jason and I up Gordon was to get us hooked on ski mountaineering and I think it’s safe to say that they succeeded! Apart from feeling like crap the ride down was amazing! It started with a steep descent off the ridge of Gordon with big sweeping turns in loose powder. The snow was flying up around my knees and I found myself lost in world of white and wind and a pounding in my chest as my legs worked hard to keep me from falling.
Blair and Dave made Jason and I look like amateurs as they executed perfect turns but I like to think we did pretty good. Because of the fresh snow, we had to ski back down the Wapta instead of simply coasting down but once we reached the slopes above the hut we were back to making turns again. This snow was windswept and loosely referred to as ‘crap’ by Dave and Blair. Jason used it as an excuse to make a spectacular somersaulting wipe out in which one of his skis actually clipped him in the back of the head!
Despite Jason’s protests (!) we bypassed the hut on the way down (you’ll have to ask him) and descended a steep gully down the headwall below the hut one skier at a time. I followed Blair down the chute and was simply blown away by the speed and quality of the snow. After a few more awesome turns it was all over much too quickly as we plodded back down to the creek.
The only nervous part of the day for me was when we were descending a short and very steep slope into the creek. Blair went first with no problems and then Dave started out. There was a loud ‘WHUMP’ as he got into the creek and the slope settled a bit. I was quite nervous as I tried to negotiate down as fast as possible and Dave stuck around in case anything happened. I went down without any further incident and then Jason started. He watched in surprise as a huge crack opened up in the snow but thankfully he made it down before it could release. We quickly skied out of the gully – again leaving a good 40 yards between us.
After a very long slog across the lake we were done! What an amazing day – I still can’t believe I did the 1200 meters of height gain and 24km of skiing feeling as I was! A big THANK YOU to Dave and Blair for taking us out. Hopefully the first of many safe and successful winter ascents for me.